Policing the journey along the low road

Alan Doig

Up to the 1980s, crime control in the UK was widely seen as virtually the sole domain and responsibility of law enforcement. Nearly all police forces had, for example, a fraud squad whose purpose was laid out in a 1970 Home Office circular (apparently 115/1970 since you ask) and who traditionally dealt with criminalised aspects of local government misconduct.

As I noted in my recent article and elsewhere that world has changed substantially. Successive governments have initiated policy-driven changes, from frontline policing to prioritised local policing plans, more recently reinforced by the election of local police commissioners with local objectives and local audiences to keep onside. The increasingly attuned political antennae of Chief Constables and the continuing downward grind of spending reviews have thus seen the abolition or downsizing of fraud squads in favour of these agendas.

Those which remain have an increasing focus on ‘economic crime’ – code for another government agenda which relates to financial offences involving organised crime, professional enablers (lawyers and others) and higher-end corporate scams. It is the same code that had the government announce the end of the National Fraud Authority as shifting the focus to ‘cutting economic crime’ through ‘concentrating effort into law enforcement bodies’.

Fraud squads – or economic crime sections or units as they are now invariably labelled – have long dealt with specialist crimes in this area, including misconduct in public office and, more recently, the steadily-growing number of election frauds. So they will no doubt be expected to take on the consequences of the government’s decision to swap some of the Standards Board’s and Audit Commission’s arrangements for a single conflict of interest/disclosure offence in Chapter 7, section 34, of the Localism Act.

Given what I know about their past enthusiasm for wading into local politics and council cultures, I am sure that the police are relishing having to untangle what on earth what is meant by councillors being ‘reckless’ about whether information on their disclosable interests is ‘true’ and ‘not misleading’ (and that’s after the police have already dealt with a whole raft of legislative linguistic ambiguities, including disclosable, pecuniary, taking steps, participating and – my favourite – reasonable excuse). Indeed, and given the economic crime agenda’s focus on serious and organised crime, one may wonder whether the police, and especially economic crime sections, are likely to have the interest and appetite for Section 34.

A wider issue concerns not just the police but also those other agencies and resources councils could draw upon as part of maintaining an effective control environment. In a landscape populated by agencies with various anti-fraud and anti-corruption roles and responsibilities, from the Land Registry to NHS Protect, a number have worked together with local authorities as task forces. Councils themselves shared information through the at-risk National Fraud Initiative. Councils have also been able to rely on DWP-funded Housing benefit investigators whose involvement in non-benefit-related frauds rose from 13% in 1994/95 to more than 40 per cent in 2010/11.

All these arrangements and resources, as well as the continuing fallout from the abolition of the Audit Commission, are, however, in a state of flux, leaving councils to ponder how they will sustain their control environments at a time when the localism agenda will require councils to become increasingly engaged in traditional red-flag areas, such as planning, new areas, such as public health, or spending through other partners, such as charities.

With two ministries debating over who pays the – very modest – bill to revive councils’ in-house investigative resources (with each council being lucky to get one FTE out of whatever deal is cobbled together), councils must wonder where the support exists in terms of any low road journey that involves criminal investigation, joint or joined-up working and information-sharing.

With only Greater Manchester Police bucking the trend and setting up a volume fraud, locally-focussed team to add to its economic crime section, accessing police expertise and capacity may be as unlikely as expecting any of the law enforcement or other bodies tasked to take on National Fraud Authority functions showing any willingness for leading, coordinating and working with councils. Even if the high road thus remains closed for the foreseeable future, the journey along the low road is not going to be without its challenges.


Alan Doig is Hon. Senior Research Fellow at the International Development Department, University of Birmingham; Visiting Professor, Newcastle Business School, Northumbria University and Board member, Management Board, North-east Fraud Forum.

Babies, bathwater and baths

Alan Doig

It came as no surprise that the incoming Conservative government was quick to abolish the Standards Board for England after its 2010 election victory. Media comments and party policy briefs made it plain that the government had no time for what it perceived to be an over-zealous, heavy-handed and centralised regulator that added little value to local government.

More of a surprise was the decision to bury the Audit Commission at the same time for, apparently, the same reasons. One can be charitable and assume the government didn’t think through the consequences; the legislative reforms or pronouncements about armchair auditors certainly suggest this. However, it would now appear that at least some in government and Whitehall recognise that throwing out the baby with the bathwater may have won them political brownie points with their local government colleagues and with the private sector, but removing the Commission’s Audit Practice (still District Audit to the rest of us) may have been akin to throwing out the bath as well.

Why Regulation?

In noting some of the episodic scandals that underline the enduring conflict between private or partisan interests and the responsibilities of public office, my recent article in Local Government Studies discusses the long haul of what might be termed the low road of compliance and the high road of ethical standards. The former concerns a control environment – the presence and application of technical and procedural controls that provides reasonable assurance of effective and efficient operations, internal financial control and the proper stewardship of public funds and powers, as well as laws, procedures and resources to scrutinise, detect and punish perpetrators. The latter involves the more recent focus on public ethics and governance arrangements. Together the two roads should combine to achieve an internalisation of norms and standards that in turn promote organisational cultures which protect against specific interests and individuals, and where the control environment can operate more effectively against those seeing to defraud or corrupt local government internally or externally.

Tipping Points in Integrity and Compliance

Unfortunately the dissolution of District Audit, together with its institutional expertise, inter-institutional cooperation, particular powers, and national assessment of patterns of delivery, overview of issues and trends, as well as data dissemination, has come at a time when local government is also undergoing changes, ranging from the implementation of the localism agenda to the declining in-house capacity to underpin the control environment which has drawn on council resources dedicated to fraud against housing benefits.

Externally, there continues to be a decrease in the resources the police are willing to commit to economic crime while the abolition of the National Fraud Authority removes the short-lived attempt to develop a national anti-fraud strategy at local level. Combined they create an unstable and under-resourced environment in which to maintain the direction of travel along both roads in the face of the roadworks thrown up by the various abolitions and wider legislative reforms.

…And a Voice from Beyond the Grave

One consequence of the roadworks has been discussions over government funding for councils’ investigative capacity and about whether other bodies could pick up the high road agenda. While good councils continue holding on to the lessons learned and seeking to maintain the direction of travel, the potential for poorer councils reverting back to those habits that made the roles of the Audit Commission and District Audit, and even the Standards Board, necessary is a risk that government cannot ignore. Nevertheless, having thrown out baby, bathwater and bath, with councils left to their own devices, and with much more pressing issues on council agendas, it will be interesting to see if the Audit Commission’s own warning, over 20 years ago in 1993, may come back to haunt the government when, in arguing for value and relevance of an anti-fraud culture or an ethical environment, the Commission warned of a local government environment which had been ‘rendered more demanding and complex by recent changes to the nature and operation of local government services. Many of these changes, such as the delegation of financial and management responsibilities, while contributing to improved quality of service, have increased the risks of fraud and corruption occurring’.

Alan’s article in Local Government Studies: Roadworks Ahead? Addressing Fraud, Corruption and Conflict of Interest in English Local Government is available online now (or contact the author if you do not have an institutional subscription).


Alan Doig is Hon. Senior Research Fellow at the International Development Department, University of Birmingham; Visiting Professor, Newcastle Business School, Northumbria University and Board member, Management Board, North-east Fraud Forum.